Human Augmentation: Digital Skin

Last week we explored how smart clothing is becoming the future of wearable tech, and how innovations in mobile apps, gadgets and the wearables space are allowing us to increasingly integrate technology into our everyday day lives.

We were thoroughly impressed with all the offerings and benefits of wearing technology on our bodies!This week however,we are exploring if it would beeven better or more convenient for us to skip the clothing part altogether, and wear tech directly on our skin.

Join us as we go one layer deeper.

Electronic skin

Electronic skin (or e-skin) refers to flexible, stretchable electronic film that can be applied in a thin layer over the wearer’s actual skin or over prosthetic limbs, mimicking the behaviour of human skin.

Research in this area began well over 20 years ago when the concept of e-skin was introduced for use in robotics, the goal was to allow for robots to react to changes in touch, pressure, and temperature the way a human would.

As humans, we can sometimes take our skin for granted, it is only when we stop and reflect on all of the things that our skin is able to do, that we realise the weight of the task of reproducing it’s capabilities. Researchers have looked into the idea of electronics that are flexible, can be sensor incorporated, and can have some kind of (flexible) battery – each one a field of research on its own.

While early versions of electronic skin were fairly basic, in the last 10 years the pace of e-skin development has accelerated considerably due to the availability of new processes and materials. As a result of this progress, the capabilities of e-skin are rapidly converging; researchers at Stanford University have managed to create high sensitivity electronic skin  that can detect the footsteps of a fly walking across it. Arguably more impressive, is that the same researchers have also developed self-healing’ electronic skin.  If it is sliced, more of the original 3 active compounds that make up the skin can be added, triggering a chemical reaction, causing the skin to knit itself back together, thus ‘healing’ the wound.

Today, in terms of flexibility, sensitivityto temperature and to pressure, e-skin is already able to outperformits human counterpart;it is currently being used in robotics as originally intended, but it is also revolutionizinghealthcare by making prosthetic limbs more lifelike than ever before.

While e-skin is a fairly permanent solution (ideally the skin would last as long as a prosthetic limb does), a less permanent option for enhancing the wearers skin would be a digital skin patch.

Digital skin patches

Digital skin patches,  are like temporary tattoos that ‘upgrade’ the wearers own skin by being able to show digital displays, or store data for example. These ‘tattoos’ do not necessarily mimic human skin the way e-skin does in terms of functionality, but the advantage here is that they can be applied in minutes with water, adhere seamlessly to the wearers skin, and last for days.

The University of Tokyo is currently using this technology to advance the medical field, here the tattoos are used to collect and store medical data, which can then be sent monitored by a doctor in a different geographical location.

Two more Prominent players in this field are MIT & Microsoft, who have collaborated to create DuoSkin. DuoSkin is “a fabrication process that enables anyone to create customized functional devices that can be attached directly on their skin”.

The digital patches created by DuoSkin, The University of Tokyo, and most of the other players in this field are sorted into 3 categories:

  • Input – For example, the wearer connects the tattoo to his phone, then presses the tattoo on his skin to turn up the volume on his phone.
  • Output – The tattoo the wearer’s skin changing colour and displaying messages.
  • Communication – Scanning the wearer’s tattoo to read data stored within.

Skin as an Electrical interface

Although this is still in the relatively early stages of development, the idea here is that a user could wear a smart band that uses Bluetooth technology, to display information on the wearer’s skin. To interact with the information presented, the wearer touches the skin like you would an iPhone or any other touchscreen. The technologies behind this Electrical Interface are an inbuilt pico-projector, proximity sensors, and a micro-computer.

A company that clearly displays this concept is Cicret based in France. A demonstration of Cicret’s concept bracelet can be seen here. Although Cicret are yet to show a working prototype, other companies such as Microsoft Research are exploring the same ideas with a system by the name of Skinput.

Looking ahead

It is clear that e-skin and digital skin patches are becoming increasingly valuable, especially in the area of healthcare – Anything that can advance healthcare, and ultimately improve the quality of human life is to be embraced and celebrated. Not to mention the whole new platform that digital tattoos open up for creative expression. Perhaps an area for further research would be in the long term effects on humans from wearing such devices.

One thing that we can say for certain, is that the barriers between man and tech are further diminishing, allowing for more seamless integration between human and digital. But will there ever come a point where a person is more machine than human? How far is too far?